Earlier this week inside Clemson's football offices, the coaches were sweating through their clothes and trying desperately to keep cool.
If you didn't know the university's air conditioning was on the fritz this particular day, you would have thought the staff was already starting to feel the stifling heat of great expectations.
By now, everyone out there knows this is supposed to be the year the Tigers finally slay their demons and claim their first ACC title since 1991.
For 10th-year coach Tommy Bowden, his staff and his players, the heat is on starting with today's official start of preseason practice. From now until the opener against Alabama, a lot of questions stand to be answered.
Here are five of the most pressing, followed by some answers:
1. Will the offensive line be ready for Alabama?
Best-case answer: Cory Lambert continues the progress he made during spring practice and sticks at left tackle. Guard David Smith becomes the guy at left guard, decisively beating out Jamarcus Grant, and fierce competition makes Barry Humphries and Mason Cloy better at right guard.
The Tigers end up progressing more quickly than expected because they're more talented and have a better mix of personalities.
Worst-case answer: Lambert struggles in camp and Chris Hairston is moved to the left side. Smith, Humphries and Cloy are toyed with by the Tigers' defensive tackles during scrimmage situations, leaving coaches with no choice but to dramatically simplify the offensive scheme the week before the game.
Our best guess: The line will be far from great heading into the opener, but simply being serviceable should suffice with all the weapons at the skill positions.
2. Will the Tigers be OK at linebacker?
Best-case answer: The Tigers are significantly short on depth and experience here, but their top four — Brandon Maye, Scotty Cooper, Kavell Conner and Stanley Hunter — are plenty capable.
The fiery Maye makes an instant impact during practice, validating comparisons to Anthony Waters. Cooper steps up at strong-side linebacker to keep defensive coordinator Vic Koenning from having to resort exclusively to five defensive backs.
Worst-case answer: The Tigers are missing a ton of valuable experience after losing Nick Watkins, Tramaine Billie, Cortney Vincent and Antonio Clay. The transition is rough, and the linebackers are strafed by misdirection and play-action.
Our best guess: With the strength on the defensive line and in the secondary, the linebackers don't exactly have to carry this defense. They'll endure their share of struggles against creative offensive coordinators, but consistent pressure from the front four — and great coverage by the defensive backs — will overshadow this deficiency enough for the Tigers to continue playing staunch defense.
3. Can special teams be special?
Best-case answer: Mark Buchholz made just 61.1 percent of his kicks last year but will be better this year because he's got experience, and because he's no longer playing soccer.
Kickoff coverage improved some last year and should do the same this year under second-year assistant Andre Powell. And whatever problems that do occur should be significantly offset by the Tigers' strength in the return game with C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford.
Worst-case answer: Buchholz had persistent problems last season with distance, missing 11 of 17 from 40 yards or more, while also having difficulty kicking from the hash marks.
Eight of Buchholz's 14 misses last year came in losses to Georgia Tech, Boston College and Auburn. His inconsistency continues and ends up costing the Tigers in a game they should win.
The kickoff and punt coverage gets worse, continuing to put the defense in bad situations.
Our best guess: Bowden thinks Buchholz will improve considerably this year, and that's conceivable. But there's not an overwhelming reason to think he's totally eradicated the inconsistency that cost the Tigers in those defeats.
Punt coverage should improve. But kickoff coverage ... hard to think Clemson has totally buried that kryptonite.
4. Will offensive coordinator Rob Spence find a way to utilize his wealth of weapons?
Best-case answer: The confidence in quarterback Cullen Harper gives Spence the freedom to weave a play-calling tapestry with James Davis, C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford, Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham.
Ford blossoms into a star as a junior, further stretching defenses that must also account for Kelly and Grisham. Davis and Spiller both rush for 1,000 yards and close the "Thunder and Lightning" era with an exclamation point.
Worst-case answer: The offensive line struggles early and often, and Spence goes into a play-calling shell by sticking with high-percentage calls and avoiding the high-risk ones.
Davis and Spiller are seldom on the field together because of pass-protection issues. Harper doesn't have time to find Kelly on deep routes, and the offense doesn't come close to reaching its potential.
Our best guess: Davis will top 1,000 yards for a third straight year. Spiller and Ford will increase their touches and production, and Kelly and Grisham will flourish.
The Tigers could have their share of sputters against some stout defenses — Wake Forest, Boston College and Florida State come to mind — but should end up with good numbers overall.
5. Will DeAndre McDaniel play this season?
Best-case answer: McDaniel, a sophomore nickel back, won't be subject to a suspension from Bowden for his June 21 arrest for assault of a high and aggravated nature.
Worst-case answer: Bowden is presented with some new evidence that undercuts McDaniel's case and suspends him for the season. The depth at linebacker and safety takes a huge hit, forcing players onto the field who wouldn't otherwise be seeing much action.
Our best guess: McDaniel avoids suspension and plays plenty.
Reach Larry Williams at email@example.com and check out the new Clemson blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/tiger_tracks/
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